China says one of its most popular preachers was embezzling millions—but was his arrest really just political revenge for speaking out against the destruction of crosses and churches across the country?
HONG KONG — When the Congyi Church in Hangzhou was finally complete in 2005, it was called the largest Chinese church in the world, able to hold a crowd of 5,500. Nearly $6.5 million was raised to fund its construction. Years later, as Congyi’s membership swelled, even the underground parking lot was reappropriated as a meeting place by younger worshipers, so they raised another million dollars to build a new parking lot.
All of the money came from Congyi’s congregation. Their pastor, Gu Yuese, whose name is the Chinese transliteration of Joseph, managed the church’s affairs for years, and eventually became the highest-ranking church official sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
On January 29, Gu was arrested by Chinese police, who stated “economic matters” as the reason. Days later, the CCP accused Gu of embezzling $1.6 million. From where, allegedly? That remains unclear.
Gu’s arrest occurred as the Chinese government continues to make heavy-handed moves to reign in Chinese Christians. In the name of maintaining “safety and beauty,” the CCP has bulldozed churches and torn down crosses—all painted red as reminders of the blood shed by the faithful when Mao Zedong’s troops tried to erase their faith from China almost 50 years ago. Those who speak out against the CCP’s decisions are arrested and placed in black jails.
Beijing now attempts to regulate Protestant and Catholic churches by demanding local leaders answer to the Chinese government instead of the Vatican or other religious authorities. In the past, the Party would groom individuals within Chinese churches to act as the government’s proxies. But the state-church face-off has become increasingly tense as Beijing now wants to force its way into the pulpit too.
CCP religious affairs officials want their own time slots during Sunday worship to educate churchgoers about the Party’s religious policies and regulations. The idea is not popular among parishioners.
Pastor Gu was vocal in his opposition to the destruction of crosses in Zhejiang province. Since 2014, 1,800 crosses have been torn down by the Chinese authorities. Bob Fu, a pastor who escaped a police crackdown in China before he founded ChinaAid, a Christian human-rights group based in Texas, shared his view that Gu’s arrest was not so much about corruption, but was “political revenge.”
Imprisoned, Gu penned a letter to his congregation to say he is doing well, and that the investigation into the alleged embezzlement was for his “own benefit.” The letter went on: “Please have faith in our government and judicial department. They will do their work rigorously, abiding by the laws and unearthing the truth with impartiality, justice, and public transparency.”
Lines like those sound suspicious enough to make many in Gu’s congregation believe he was forced to write the letter, a sentiment shared by Chinese citizens after similar I’m-doing-well letters were made public following the abduction of five booksellers based in Hong Kong. The same language is used in pre-trial televised confessions, which are also believed to be produced via coercion.
Gu was arrested under Article 73 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law, which states anyone suspected of committing a crime that endangers state security, involving terrorist activities or significant bribes, is placed in “residential surveillance at a designated place.” That means Gu is jailed in a secret location as he awaits final charges. According to Article 73, suspects can be held for up to six months in any location chosen by the authorities, and are denied legal counsel and visits.
When over 250 human-rights lawyers and their associates were arrested last July, they were held according to the framework outlined by Article 73. Many were released within days, but some of those who remained under “residential surveillance” for months were beaten or tortured. Seven individuals who were arrested in the July sweep were charged with “subversion” last month.
Officially, China is an atheist country, but constitutionally guarantees religious freedom. However, in practice, the CCP is wary of all religious organizations. In particular, CCP officials see several religious bodies as threatening forces, including Protestant and Catholic churches. The Party currently has just under 88 million members, whereas there may be up to 100 million Christians in China today.
Wenzhou, a city in the same province as Hangzhou, has an estimated 1.2 million Protestants among its population of nine million, and is known as China’s Jerusalem. By the end of 2014, China was the largest producer of Christian Bibles. Walk through the old city of the actual Jerusalem or other major Christian sites, and you’ll find many of the crosses and rosaries for sale were made in China.
As the CCP becomes increasingly vocal against foreign influence, or is at least quick to blame foreign powers for domestic woes, Christianity is seen by Beijing as a hazard to the Party’s dominance in the political fabric of China even though the churches seem to hold no such agenda.
Chinese citizens join churches for various reasons. Some enter with curiosity and end up returning every week. Others join their neighbors, schoolmates, or business contacts for Sunday mass. Becoming part of China’s churches isn’t only a spiritual matter; the draw is also in the social element, the togetherness that a group of friendly people can offer.
The most common theme is that church leadership is well liked and respected. Not only is there a sense of community, members of Chinese churches feel like they can trust the pastors or priests who give mass every Sunday, but are also around to offer assistance whenever needed. The clergy embed themselves within the community, and are, well, nice, and don’t exclude anyone. That’s a huge contrast to CCP officials, who amid Chinese President Xi Jinping’s corruption crackdown are still seen as individuals with guarded and selfish interests.
Church leaders like Gu have cultivated massive followings, particularly along the central eastern coast where many churches are located. House churches, though illegal under Chinese law, continue to spread and gather new members by word of mouth. One hundred million Christians among nearly 1.4 billion people in China may seem like a small slice of the population, but that’s sufficient to rattle the CCP’s existential foundations. After all, it wasn’t so long ago—roughly around the time of the American Civil War—when Imperial China was rocked by a pseudo-Christian uprising that resulted in 20 to 30 million deaths. It was the Taiping Rebellion, led by a man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Beijing’s mistake is thinking that the churches of Zhejiang are hungry for power, and that miscalculation is costing the CCP in what they perceive as a battle for China’s soul.